“The fires that began in Tottenham would burn through English towns and cities for four nights. The summer disturbances left five people dead, hundreds injured and more than 4.000 arrested. It was the most serious bout of civil unrest in a generation, with as many as 15.000 people taking to the streets.”
– Paul Lewis, Reading the Riots, The Guardian
On the 7th of August 2011, a peaceful protest outside a small police station in Tottenham, North London became the ignition of four nights of riots and looting that engulfed London boroughs and cities across England, including Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, and Bristol.
The four days of mass rioting amounted to £200 million worth of damage and over £300 million claimed on insurance as large companies, corner shops, community buildings and cars bore the brunt of the unrest as thousands took to the streets.
Over the past year, much time and energy has been spent seeking to explain what happened and why and what is needed to deal with the social and cultural issues that lay underneath the violence and disorder.
The Guardian and London School of Economics’ study Reading the Riots has excellently captured some of the reasons as to why the riots happened, and the Government’s independent Riot Communities and Victims Panel concluded with 63 recommendations for the police, local authorities, schools, corporations and public services.
Life in the UK
The UK is currently in its second bout of recession since the financial crash in 2008 and figures from the IMF recently showed the UK would have the smallest growth in 2011 of any developed country. Since 2010, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition have attempted to deal with UK’s budget deficit and in 2010, they announced a spending cut of £81billion over 4 years, with departmental cuts of 19% and Local Authorities forced to cut local services by around a quarter.
For young people, this period has seen record youth unemployment, the tripling university tuition fees, withdrawal of housing benefit for under 25s and the abolition of the Educational Maintenance Allowance – a benefit designed to support low earning families to afford 16-18 education.
In August 2011, David Cameron, the British Prime Minister said the riots were, “criminality, pure and simple.” But many – including those taking part – disagree with him and put the Government’s actions centre stage in the debate on causes.
“Police don’t think we’re rioting for a reason. They believe we’re rioting because Mark Duggan died and we have no other reason. Like, we’re rioting cos they’re not giving us nothing to do, they’re taking away EMA (Educational Maintenance Allowance), taking away free travel, taking away certain allowances that teenagers have and they’re not replacing it with anything good.”
– Andrew, Reading the Riots participant.
Through Reading the Riots, complemented by grassroots work in Croydon with 300 young people, two issues characterize youth involvement in the riots and give us a starting point for exploring what impact the riots have had on local and national policy and what has changed in the lives of young people in the past year.
Youth unemployment, opportunities and hopelessness
Youth unemployment hit a peak in 2011 with one million 16-24 years old not in education, employment or training. Though youth unemployment has been rising steadily for many years, the financial crash has exacerbated the problem and many young people involved in last summer’s riots described the lack of opportunities – be that employment, education or things to do – as a key driver for involvement. In the UK a fifth of young people are unemployed and half of all young black men are without work or in education.
This was often coupled with a feeling of unfairness at a time of MPs expenses scandal, corruption in business, and the fallout with high bonuses continued to be paid from bailed out banks. One analyst from The Guardian said,
“Whether their focus was police conduct, government policy, or difference in income and wealth – each of which was a recurring theme – the one term that kept cropping up was ‘justice.’”
Though the Government has often been criticized for a slow and inadequate response to rising youth unemployment, in April, the Deputy Prime Minister announced a £1bn fund through the Youth Contract that will provide incentives to businesses to recruit young people under 25. The Coalition expect this to create 410,000 new jobs over the next 3 years – though 250,000 will be work experience placements rather than full time employment. Nick Clegg, the DPM said,
“Youth unemployment isn’t just an unforgivable economic waste – it’s a human tragedy too. The struggles of these young men and women, their fears, their hardship, the dreams they put to one side. We cannot accept that.”
The problem of youth unemployment is systemic with the deficit of jobs growing since before the financial crash. Inequality – the gap between rich and poor – was widening during the Labour government and while everyone got richer during that time, the rich got richer and inequality grew.
While the ending of one government benefit, that only a minority of those involved in the riots would have received, the repeated mention of EMA was indicative of wider anger, frustration and injustice that those already the lowest earners and most marginalized in society are being hit hardest by government austerity and public sector cuts.
The perception of low opportunities for young people is high and felt by young people of all different ages. The increasing of university tuition fees has seen a drop in high education applications while younger people are seeing their youth clubs close and activities stopped as Local Authorities frontload large cuts in central government funding. During our work in Croydon last year, young people hadn’t even been informed that the youth club we were working in was due to close the following week.
During the Reading the Riots interviews, when asked what they thought the leading cause of the riots were, 68% of the public said the police.
For those who did not experience the riots first hand, it is hard to imagine the lawlessness of England’s streets during those nights. The police were, at times outnumbered, unprepared to deal with the violence and unable to keep track with the rapid plans made through Blackberry Messenger. By the final night 16.000 police officers were on the streets and this marked—although is not necessarily the definitive cause—the end of the worst civil unrest in a generation. The threat of water canons and rubber bullets deterred some, while the rain and a sense of ‘mission complete’ kept others at home.
But it isn’t just the policing that was criticized. The police themselves have been placed in the frame.
While many people come into little contact with the police, for some in society it can be an almost daily occurrence with relationships between communities—particularly young, black men—and the police rapidly deteriorating in recent years.
“I hate the police. I hate the fact that one time I’ve been stopped and searched on the street and this man’s thought I had a weapon just because of the way I had a certain fucking scarf. They talk as if they are above you.”
– Reading the Riots participant.
If you are a black male, you are 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched – stop and search being the controversial law enabling police to search individuals without any suspicion of an offense – than the rest of the population. In 2009, it was only 10 times more likely. At the same time, only 0.5% of those stopped and searched were subsequently arrested for carrying a dangerous weapon.
“I think it was having a go at the police – you know, after years of abuse. Because the police do abuse people, they do, like, take liberties. I know people who get harassed by the police on a regular basis, and it will always go on – and I can’t see it ever stopping.”
The Metropolitan police’s riot report concluded that ‘a level of tension existed among sections of the community.’ What is most surprising, is that this was a surprise to the Met police and despite the introduction of community police officers over the past few years, the tension went ignored and unrecognized until the riots.
In response, Bernard Hogan-Howe, appointed as Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police just 3 weeks before the riots in London, has pledged to half the number of people stopped and searched in a swift change of policy attempting to rebuild relationships with the black community. However, this hasn’t been reflected in recent data released by the London School of Economics (LSE) and the Open Society Justice Initiative and neither in Hogan-Howe’s past having overseeing the number of stop and search uses from 1.389 to a staggering 23.138.
The police are facing large restructuring in response to government cuts and insecurity about their own jobs undoubtedly takes priority over locally based community engagement work. The police have faced years of criticism with tactics and relationships brought into question and corruption exposed during the phone hacking scandal makes it little wonder that only 7% of rioters, and only 56% of the public, think the police do a good job in their community.
In the ‘police and public’ section of the Riot Panel’s report into the cause and effects on the England Riots, the first recommendation highlights the need to the police to be perceived to act with integrity at all time. Other recommendations focus on ‘integrity,’ ‘engagement,’ ‘trust,’ ‘confidence,’ and ‘transparency’ and urge the police to make relationship building and engagement a central part of their post-riots strategy. Meaningful engagement and dialogue, which we see time and time again in civil conflicts, is a much more effective tactic that heavy handed confrontation and aggression.
People’s opinions on the riots have often come down to their politics. The left have cried out in horror at society’s failures, inequality, public cuts and marginalization of the poor. The right retaliates with community and family breakdown, weak deterrents, political correctness and the nanny, mollycoddling welfare state. But what both sides should be able to agree on is that something has gone profoundly wrong in Britain. Whatever the belief held, the riots were proof of the failing; the only question is where to lay the blame.
Whether the England riots were an outbreak of civil mutiny or an outcry of the struggles facing the masses, change is needed.
We cannot ignore, both from the police statistics and verbatim evidence from Reading the Riots, that some young people and adults committed large scale, serious crimes. Families and friends will never forget the five individuals who died and the damage, theft, arson and assault cannot simply be apologized for by social ills, political deficits, economic meltdowns and cultural alienation. Violent disorder happened on the streets of England and those responsible must be held to account.
But while the individuals involved must take responsibility for their actions, so must policy makers. Local authorities, the police, national government, schools and youth services must accept policies have failed and are inadequate to provide young people with the confidence, skills, opportunities and ambition to lead fulfilling lives.
The Riot Communities and Victims Panel, along with many of the other reports, have given a sense of the scale of action needed and given a framework for avoiding subsequent scenes again.
In asking that what’s changed, we believe the story to be unfinished. As we—the youthpolicy.org team—head back into riot affected communities, meet decision makers, Riot panel members, young people and communities NGOs, we’ll be exploring whether change is happening and whether the riots have had a lasting impact in terms of local and national policy or whether it has been swept under an Olympic shaped rug and forgotten.
The riots don’t need to happen again, though 81% of people think they will. No one wants to see a repeat, but our chance of survival is limited if we forever analyze the symptoms and never take the medication.